A letter to Matt about Behind the Candlabra
I recently had the pleasure of watching Steve Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which I obtained illegally on the Internet. Apparently there are legal routes to obtaining this puppy in your country, which involve stealing your friends’ HBOGo password, but us adopted Turks must resort to light theft. I recommend it highly, although I also would be gunshy about watching it (as I did) on an airplane while sitting between two middleaged Lebanese men. I may be overestimating their capacity to be scandalized, but I certainly felt a bit sheepish watching Matt Damon emerge from a pool in a metal-studded white thong while flanked by two unfamiliar bearded men.
Soderbergh is kind of an anomalous director: despite having made many of the most entertaining films of the past few decades (Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovitch, and Magic Mike), I feel like he doesn’t have the reverence which would be commensurate with the quality of his directorial output. It’s not even that he lacks a signature style. Despite working in a wide variety of genres, his work is recognizable for its cool visual palette and impeccable pacing. He even has a set of personally held thematic concerns that hold across a varied catalogue, primarily his unsensational fascination with sex. Despite these features, his films have this quality of being vehicles for characters rather than vehicles for the director’s sensibility, which probably accounts for his relative lack of reverence.
There’s a lot of things to love about Behind the Candelabra, an account of a love affair between a flamboyant pianist (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorsten, a young foster-child cum animal-handler (Matt Damon). (The uniformly splendid supporting cast is not the least of them – a horrific wax effigy of Rob Lowe puts in excellent work as a pill-dispensing plastic surgeon). I could heap praise on many elements, but to me the remarkable element of the film is this: it is an intensely gay film where the fact of gayness is largely incidental.
Despite being set in an era when it was not permissible to be openly gay, the fact that the central relationship of the film is between two men mostly accidental, because the film is so effective at depicting elements of their relationship that are just features of romantic relationships in general: power, jealousy, lust, and companionship. I mean, it is obvious to me that the lived relationships of gay people are pretty much like my own in most respects, but when it comes to movies we see very few gay relationships portrayed this way. (Milk is the closest thing I could recall, but the film is so focused on the historical register that the texture of Milk’s relationships get lost in the shuffle.)
Given the unseemly mixture of roles that Scott came to occupy in Liberace’s life – he is simultaneously his lover, employee, physical mirror, adopted son, sugar baby and conscience – the sympathy with which the relationship is portrayed verges on moral triumph. Liberace is exuberantly screwed-up, and Scott is screwed up in a vulnerable way. There are some queasy dimensions to their relations, none more queasy than Liberace’s insistence that Scott undergo plastic surgery to make him physically appear like a younger version of himself. These exist comfortably side-by-side with elements of genuine care and tenderness. There are fights about how often the couple go out and see their friends (in this case, Charo). In short, it is thoroughly plausible showbiz relationship. Over the long run it goes sour.
In fact, in terms of its overall thematic arc, the film that BTC most strongly resembles is Boogie Nights, which is also focused on the life arc of an insecure and rootless young stud who finds an unorthodox surrogate family in showbiz. Anderson’s career arc furnishes a useful point of comparison with Soderbergh; since Boogie Nights Anderson’s preoccupations have become metaphysical in their approach to character, an approach which has admittedly led to the best film of the last decade. But there is something so much more loveable and deomcratic, if less grand, in Soderbergh’s persistently humane approach. We don’t get the heaven-storming ambition in Soderbergh’s films. But we get something as valuable: a patient scrutiny of unusual human beings as they are, conducted without moralizing. Like Liberace himself, their ordinariness gives them a cumulative transcendence.